Covering Your A**: The Importance of Copyright and PROs for DIY Artists


It was our second year of being a band and I was hanging out with my keyboardist when we received a surprise call from a mutual friend. Apparently she had heard one of our songs in the background of a reality TV show that she normally would not admit to watching. Our first thought was “yeah right.” There is no shortage of indie pop music in the world and it was way more likely that the music just sounded like one of our songs. “No, really…” she said as she sent a cellphone video confirming it as ours. Initially we were irrationally excited. Even if it was just background music, this was big news for a small band like us looking for any good reason to continue playing. After a few minutes of jumping up and down, important questions began to surface that would overcast the mood. How did the music get there? When do we get paid?? And why didn’t we get notified???

As a musician, it can be easy to feel helpless when it comes to protecting your music – especially when from the consumer side, we can all see how easy it is to steal. You may be thinking, “Why does it matter? I'm not making any money anyway.” …Yet. It is super important to create a paper trail before exploiting your music. What if one of your songs is a monster smash hit that is discovered tomorrow? By that point you are too late.

And now you may be thinking, “I’m not in it for the money… Why should I care?” Care because copyright is not just about earning money, it’s about protecting your unique ideas. It is a physical document that represents your intangible musical thoughts… get hyped. Without a legit copyright it will be hard to legally prove a song as your own. “If I def created the music, aren't the files dated on my computer enough to prove it as my own?” …No. “What if I send a CD of my music to myself in certified mail?” …Still no. The only way to ensure the protection of your music is by registering with the Copyright Office. For first-timers it may take an hour to familiarize yourself with the registration process, but once mastered you will be a well-oiled-copyright-registering machine. You are going to want to register both the composition and the sound recording. Once filed, the copyright will take between three and ten months. However, if properly completed, the copyright is effective once the claim is made.

Alright, alright. Now you’re protected, but how do you collect all the monies? Copyrighting your work will not get you money directly. Once the copyright is fully registered (or even once it’s filed) be sure to register all of your music with a performance rights organization. A performance rights organization (or PRO) collects money on behalf of the songwriter from venues (including restaurants, churches, and schools), radio, streaming services, TV and more.  In America, there are three main options for PROs: ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. Each has subtle differences though any will get the job done. Do plenty of research before affiliating with one as it will be pretty difficult to switch. Once you have joined a PRO, register each of your songs and familiarize yourself with the website. Learn how to claim on live concerts and explore the perks and contests associated with each PRO. “Hey, I play the bass fiddle in the band but did not write the song. Isn’t there any money for me?” Good question. If you are a performer on a track, you are going to want to register with SoundExchange. SoundExchange pays out on royalties generated by the sound recording. These royalties are split in half between the rights owners and the performing artists (you may be both).

“Woah, woah, woah… I signed up to be a musician, not a lawyer. What is the minimum I have to do to be protected?” If you have birthed music you have a responsibility to protect it, just like if you were to birth a child… At the very least, please copyright your music. End. Of. Story.

It’s still a battle even for us but we registered our music, signed on with a PRO (ASCAP), and have a dedicated team of people who look out for us – and that makes everything a little easier.

-Alex Ganes, Shiffley